Street sweepers, gardeners, road-repair crews and painters were busy putting the final touches to Phnom Penh city in the weeks before the Asean Summit, but it was the threat of international terrorism that dominated the behind-the-scenes work as Cambodia prepared for its largest-ever state visit.
In the year following the Sept 11 attacks on New York and Washington and the Oct 12 bombings on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, Southeast Asia has shown it is not outside the grasp of international terrorism.
Cambodia discovered that it too was not immune when an al-Qaida-linked operative disclosed the country was one of eight in the region earmarked for attacks against Western interests around the anniversary of Sept 11.
Cambodia’s long history of warfare, the availability of cheap weaponry, its once-rampant crime and lax law enforcement also brought into question whether Cambodia could deal effectively with the massive security requirements of the Asean Summit.
Already struggling under the mammoth task of simply organizing the summit, security emerged as the over-riding concern— prompting Cambodian officials to personally guarantee “100 percent” safety for visiting delegates.
Foreign military and security experts remained cautious in the post-Bali period.
However, Asian diplomats have said the Cambodian government’s security arrangements were adequate and the bombings in Bali would not affect the summit in Phnom Penh, except to catapult regional security to center stage of summit talks.
“It will dominate Asean discussions” and likely “galvanize Asean leaders in paying greater attention to combating terrorism,” an Asean analyst said.
In Brunei earlier this year, Asean foreign ministers agreed to join the US-led fight against terrorism, but Indonesia’s slow adoption of anti-terror measures have left the whole region vulnerable, an Asian diplomat said.
This fact was struck home by the Bali attack that killed nearly 200 people, injured hundreds more, and dealt a huge blow to Asean’s multibillion dollar tourism industry.
A groundbreaking Asean tourism agreement is expected to be signed at the summit.
But without serious cooperation to check terrorism, Southeast Asia could become a “no-go area” for international holiday makers, the diplomat warned.
Last week’s spate of arson attacks and bomb explosions in Thailand’s southern provinces heightened those fears. Thai officials claim the attacks are linked locally-based criminals, not terrorists, bent on sowing strife between the region’s Buddhist and Muslim populations.
Whatever their basis, the attacks will likely damage an already marred international image of Southeast Asia as a destination for tourism.
Australia and Britain have upgraded their travel advisory warnings to most Asean countries since Sept 11 and Bali.
Jakarta is now seen as key in regional efforts to crackdown on Islamic militants, and Asean members know that if Indonesia continues to be a haven for home-grown militants, the whole region remains insecure, the diplomat said.
While Bali has re-focused the Asean Summit talks, the heightened security concerns in Phnom Penh could also deal a severe blow to the months of preparations by city officials to showcase the Cambodian capital during the high-level talks.
Millions of dollars have been spent and thousands of people mobilized for what is Phnom Penh’s most important postwar debut, and the biggest peace-time chance for Cambodia to shine on the world stage.
A capital city ringed in checkpoints and armed police was not what Phnom Penh’s Governor Chea Sophara had planned for the city during the summit.
But as the days drew closer to the high-level power talks, officials announced that for security reasons some of the city’s main thoroughfares were to be kept clear of market stalls and street-side food vendors.
Later, it was announced that several of the city’s main boulevards could also be closed to pedestrian and vehicular traffic for considerable periods of time.
Then, late last month, the extent of disruption to city life was made more apparent when all schools and government offices were ordered closed and students and staff told to stay at home during the summit.
With all emphasis on regional and personal security during the summit, few of the hundreds of delegates and foreign dignitaries visiting Phnom Penh are likely to have the time—or inclination—to sight-see in the city, foreign diplomats said.
However, Chea Sophara is convinced that his preparations were not in vain.
“The delegations will have a free choice whether they want to travel in the city. There is nothing to be concerned about,” he said.
Shaded, tree-lined boulevards, French-colonial architecture nestled next to traditional Cambodian hardwood homes and the golden spires of the Royal Palace once earned Phnom Penh a reputation as one of the most exquisite cities in Indochina.
In Cambodia’s post-independence period of the late 1950s, Phnom Penh was described as a “Paris of the Orient.” But the city’s moment of glory was short-lived as Cambodia slipped into the revolutionary wars of the 1960s.
Barbed wire and sandbags replaced ornate spirit houses outside government buildings in Phnom Penh by the mid-1970s, and as communist rockets rained down, the city finally fell to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975.
The city was quickly emptied of inhabitants, leaving it all but deserted until 1979 when the Vietnamese army toppled the regime.
Inhabitants trickled back to Phnom Penh, but the city’s decades-long fall into poverty and crumbling neglect erased the memory of Phnom Penh’s better days.
A shock rebirth began in late 1991 as Phnom Penh saw an explosion in gaudy, hastily constructed hotels, restaurants and residences catering to the massive inflow of UN staff and salaries that accompanied Cambodia’s first elections in 1993.
But after the UN property boom, much of the new construction quickly followed the crumbling path of its wartime predecessors.
Until recently, Phnom Penh’s reconstruction had been a sporadic and haphazard affair.
However, renovation momentum grew as the date was set for the Asean Summit and in the past months, a certain urgency was undeniably in the air.
City streets—long left potholed and bereft of pavement and curbstones—were suddenly receiving the attention of road-repair crews and generous quantities of asphalt.
Drainage systems, which each rainy season spewed their watery contents onto Phnom Penh’s streets, received similar repairs.
Armies of street sweepers were also busy on the main boulevards, collecting the dirt and dust kicked up by city life and the months of construction to complete repairs to the city’s main thoroughfares.
The new Pochentong Airport terminal was also unveiled in time for Asean, complete with sky ramp and chic departure lounges.
Then last month, the peak of summit veneer—high-tech traffic lights—were installed on Mao Tse-tung Boulevard, the main route to the Asean summit conference center at the Hotel Inter-Continental.
At a cost of $3 million, the safety lights with a 40-second countdown feature were installed compliments of the Chinese government.
“The world thought that all Cambodians are Khmer Rouge and there are land mines everywhere,” Chea Sophara said.
“Now there is no more fighting. No more land mines. We are peaceful. We know how to do more than talk. We know how to jump from a difficult situation to a good one,” he said.
Municipal officials spruced up the parks near the National Assembly and Wat Phnom, trimmed trees on Norodom Boulevard, re-tiled the Independence Monument, repaired dozens of kilometers of city streets and drainage systems and replaced hundreds of street lights.
Iv Taing Chrin, deputy director of the municipal finance department, said the renovation work—begun several years ago—have seen $12 million pumped into city improvement projects, with 90 percent now completed.
Beyond the physical infrastructure of Phnom Penh, everyone from food vendors to ordinary residents have been told to do their own personal improvements ahead of the summit.
Curb-side food stalls—many of which were forced to move from the routes on which delegates were to travel—were asked to purchase new, shiny umbrellas for the summit
Chea Sophara said he would also ask residents to dress in their best clothes. Chest-and-torso baring cyclo and motorcycle riders have been banned while the foreign delegations are in town
“Just for one or two weeks. This is a good reason… for this special occasion,” Chea Sophara said.
Phnom Penh’s homeless were also marked for special pre-summit attention as city officials announced plans to sweep them from the streets ahead of the meetings.
The initiative earned Chea Sophara considerable criticism from NGOs.
Opposition party leader Sam Rainsy also blasted the lavish injection of government money on city beautification at a time when hundreds of thousands of Cambodian farmers are being hit by food shortages brought on by severe droughts and flooding.
Sam Rainsy and several of his parliamentarians have threatened to hold protests and a hunger strike during the Asean summit.
Chea Sophara has tried to side-step criticism by announcing plans to build a residential-cum-vocational training center for homeless children on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
He also suggested establishing the country’s first-ever foster care program to find stable homes for Phnom Penh’s street children.
Whether these promises pan out in the post-summit period remains to be seen.
But for now, municipal officials have all eyes on making Phnom Penh shine for Asean.
“This summit will be the honor of our city, our country and our people,” said Mann Chhoeun, Phnom Penh Municipality chief of cabinet.
“In the past no-one would ever accept to come to a meeting in our country. We are now trying to clean-up the old rumors about Cambodia,” he said.
And in post-war Cambodia, tourism is booming.
Growing at between 25 percent and 30 percent per year since the late 1990s, Cambodia is expecting to greet one million visitors next year and further reap the financial reward of peace.
Ministry of Tourism Director General Kousoum Saroeuth estimates that in the first nine months of 2002, tourists spending in Cambodia was some $240 million dollars.
That’s about 10 percent of the country Gross Domestic Product and is fast creeping up on the country’s largest industry, garment manufacturing, which is worth $1.2 billion annually.
But tourism industry insiders say the government could do more to make Phnom Penh more visitor-friendly, and in the process stop the hemorrhage of visitors who skip the capital in favor of Siem Reap town and Angkor Wat.
Only 20 percent of visitors come to Phnom Penh, while 80 percent of visitors fly straight from regional capitals to Siem Reap town, where they typically stay a few days before heading straight back home.
Phnom Penh Hotel Association President Meas Chhay said the city needs more attractions, such as a strategically placed tourism information center, a foreigner-friendly taxi service, night markets, art centers and, most importantly, regular cultural shows and exhibitions, especially during the low tourist season.
Cambodia is stable and tourism is growing, and with the international exposure the Asean summit brings, tourist arrivals seem set to continue.
But that is as long as attacks, like the one in Bali, do not drag the whole region into a popular international perception that Southeast Asia is a second front for al-Qaida’s war with the US and its allies, officials said.